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Education And Debate

Science for evil: the scientist's dilemma

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 14 August 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:448
  1. Michael Atiyah, president of Pugwash (
  1. Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3JZ

    You are a scientist. You see your science being put to evil purposes, with disaster looming ahead. What do you do? This was the dilemma that confronted nuclear physicists in 1945 after the atomic bomb had been exploded over Japan. The search to understand the ultimate nature of matter, driven by intellectual curiosity and carried out in an abstruse mathematical framework, had produced the ultimate weapon of war.

    Whether the development and use of these first atomic bombs was morally justified is today deeply disputed, but the problem that confronted the scientists at the end of the war was how to control the genie that had escaped from the bottle. They had produced a weapon that threatened the future of humankind. Their collective responsibility (or guilt) was unambiguous, but what should they do?

    This was the genesis of the Pugwash organisation, an informal group of scientists who saw it as their responsibility to prevent the catastrophe of nuclear war in the future. From the beginning they were international, including, crucially, scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain; they were experts, in both scientific and military spheres; and they conducted their discussions out of the limelight. The aim was to bring calm academic thinking to the complex scientific, military, and political issues involved.

    Summary points

    The Pugwash organisation was set up by physicists after the building of the atomic bomb to try to contain the malign uses of their science

    Since then other scientists have become involved as other sciences have been used for destructive purposes

    Pugwash has been involved in various conventions designed to prohibit the use of biological and chemical weapons, though many problems remain in monitoring the use of such weapons

    Pugwash also increasingly grapples with wider …

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